The Great Vaccine Heist Of 1959 Saw A Man Locked In A Monkey Cage With 500 Rhesus Monkeys

Security guard about to be thrown in a monkey cage. Image credit: Andrey_Popov/

At the height of a polio outbreak in 1959 Montreal, a group of men planned a heist. The loot wasn't to be money or drugs or guns, but precious vaccines that had just been shipped in to the Institute of Microbiology and Hygiene at the tail end of August that year.

The Institute had 75,000 doses of the Salk vaccine, needed to bring the outbreak under control, which the men planned to sell off to vaccinate children unofficially. When the vaccine was given legitimately, there were mile-long queues of people waiting for their turn to be inoculated against the debilitating disease. Demand was high, and money was to be made by anyone unscrupulous enough to take them, being worth around $50,000.

The plan was not a sophisticated one. On August 31, 1959, at 3 am, they entered the Institute wearing masks and armed with guns, and demanded that the night watchman "show us where the monkey department is". Hardly a scene you'd see planned out in Oceans Eleven

The guard, who had informed the men there was no cash in any of the labs, complied with the order. For his trouble, he was thrown in a cage alongside 500 rhesus macaques while the crew loaded up 25 crates of the vaccine into both their car and his, before speeding off into the night. He finally managed to escape his monkey cage at 6 am.

Given the urgency of the situation – vaccines that needed to be stored correctly were missing during an outbreak, leaving the city with no supply – the police were told to prioritize recovering the vaccine over capturing the perpetrators.



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Despite meeting many dead ends, they were in luck a few days later when they received an anonymous tip, straight up naming the location of practically all the lost vials of vaccine. They headed to the apartment and found vials stuffed into empty boxes of beer, on top of blocks of ice to keep them cool, and inside a fridge next to the beer, just waiting for a comedic mixup. 

After recapture, the vials were tested and found to be viable. What's more, the police had a suspect. Jean Paul Robinson, 33 at the time, had been a temporary vaccine worker at the Institute, who had been tasked with running vials between clinics. The day of the heist, he rented the apartment where the vaccines were found, paying in cash for a week. 

Having instructed the professor in charge of the lab keeping the vials to hand over 250 of them, he then signed the receipt "Paul Robinson". Despite the excellent ruse of merely committing one of his names, this gave police enough evidence to issue an arrest warrant. He went on the run, disguising himself with glasses, a new mustache, and even altered his complexion. However, he was staying in a shed that had been rented by his wife.

The anonymous tip, it was discovered during a pre-trial hearing, had been given to the police by Robinson himself

At the trial, his defense was that he was a dedicated anti-polio worker who unofficially distributed vaccines to those who needed them, and that he had "retrieved" the vaccines from the culprits on behalf of the police. According to his version of events, he had been sold the vaccine before arranging another meeting with the thief "Bob" where he planned to get him arrested, with the cooperation of the police. Robinson stated he got "panicky" and fled, fearing that a drunk cop accompanying him was going to attack him if "Bob" didn't show. 

Despite dozens of witnesses who testified against him, Robinson was eventually found not guilty of the charges against him because they could not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. In his summary, however, the judge took the time to point out that Robinson's story was "strange and a little far-fetched”.

[H/T: The Conversation]


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